May 21, 2009

“Will “”Iron Lady”” of Lithuania go soft on Russia?”

On Sunday evening, champagne corks popped open in many places around Lithuania when the preliminary results of the presidential elections were declared. As expected, the EU commissioner for budget and financial programming Dalia Grybauskaitė won it handsomely already in the first round, collecting almost 70% of votes at 51% turnout. She will become the first female head of state of Lithuania ever.

On Sunday evening, champagne corks popped open in many places around Lithuania when the preliminary results of the presidential elections were declared. As expected, the EU commissioner for budget and financial programming Dalia Grybauskaitė won it handsomely already in the first round, collecting almost 70% of votes at 51% turnout. She will become the first female head of state of Lithuania ever.

She is a natural yet interesting choice for Lithuanians. Tough and straight talking bearer of black belt in karate, exuding self-confidence and boasting an impressive diplomatic (up to deputy foreign minister) and civil service (technocratic minister of finance and then the EU commissioner) career, she matches high expectations for decisive actions and economic competence. In the times of the deepest economic crisis, these qualities will be certainly appreciated, although one may already feel sorry for the prime minister and members of the cabinet. I am sure we will find ourselves asking who actually is in charge of managing the economy – the cabinet (as it is supposed to be) or the president (as the people expect). She also ran on a fiercly anti-establishment platform, calling for taking on the local oligarchs and entrenched monopolies such as the energy corporation LEO LT as well as their political patrons and puppets.

More controversially, she holds a PhD from the institute in Leningrad, having studied there at the same time as Alexei Kudrin, current minister of finance of Russia. This has already led the Russian media, which gave her an unusually extensive coverage (to the point of asking if Russians would see her fit to lead…Russia; majority said “yes”), to declare her as one of the famous “Petersburg group” (other members feature such figures as Dmitri Medvedev). She also did a stint as a lecturer at the communist party’s high school in Vilnius. Nonetheless, these facts did not prevent the most anti-communist of the large Lithuanian parties, the ruling conservative Homeland Union, from endorsing Grybauskaitė‘s candidacy. At the same time, she was also endorsed by the arch-enemy of the conservatives, former president and prime minister Algirdas Brazauskas, leader of the ex-communist camp.

This uneasy mixture of the anti-establishment populism yet with a career deeply rooted in that establishment, lack of concern about the boundaries of the presidential powers, linkages with the communist past and Russia yet loyal service to independent Lithuania is very typical of the post-communist generation of the Lithuanian politicians. Critics already dubbed the president-elect as 3Ps: Paksas (the impeached populist president), Prunskienė (former prime minister with the alleged links to the KGB) and…Putin (a tough judo guy in Moscow) – all three in one. This is quite harsh and probably unfair, but there are reasons to worry that Edward Lucas is a tat too optimistic claiming that the period of political turbulence in Lithuania is over. Grybauskaitė, with her determination to shake and change things, may turn out to be a catalyst of another round of turmoil. If she does not tread carefully, she certainly runs great risks of activating all constitutional checks and balances between legislative, executive and judicial branches. If this happens, she may end up being as isolated and weakened as the incumbent Valdas Adamkus at best, or face a similar fate as Rolandas Paksas at worst.

But let’s leave all this for the Lithuanian domestic politics to play out. Most surprisingly of all, although in Lithuania the president has the strongest mandate in foreign policy, Grybauskaitė‘s doctrine in this area remains quite rudimentary. One is confined to deducting from her various short statements and random observations. Given the anti-establishment stance of the president-elect and her being unhappy with virtually all strands of national policy, it would be natural to start with the assumption that a significant shift is nigh. Bring in the fact that Grybauskaitė’s comfort zone is economy, finances and the EU as well as that she knows Russia inside out too, and you have all the ingredients from which the new Lithuanian foreign policy doctrine will be made.

Under Valdas Adamkus, Lithuania developed a certain brand as pursuing values-based foreign policy, standing up firm to Russia’s neo-imperial assertiveness, supporting new democracies in the former Soviet Union (e.g. Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia) and advocating their interests in the West. Relations with Russia have been virtually frozen, as Kremlin continued meddling in Lithuania’s politics, denying Russia’s responsibility for (and even the fact of) Soviet occupation, applying political pressure through energy supplies and using dirty propaganda, home and abroad, to smear and undermine Lithuania (as well as Latvia and Estonia). In return, Lithuania has been aligning itself more closely with the United States (the background of Adamkus certainly helped in that), poking Russia in the eye publicly at every opportunity and blocking various aspects of the EU relations with Moscow, while demanding Moscow to respect sovereignty of Russia’s neighbours and play by the rules of civilised relations. No wonder, Adamkus has never visited Moscow, and Putin or Medvedev have never felt compelled to pay a visit to Vilnius. Regardless of that, Adamkus concluded that Lithuania’s foreign policy under his stewardship was a success story.

However, lately this state of affairs has been undergoing subtle shifts. The new foreign minister Vygaudas Ušackas, although constrained to some degree by anti-Russian stance of the Homeland Union, is advocating a more pragmatic approach focusing on economic relations, opening new markets for the Lithuanian exports and settling many practical outstanding issues with Russia. Russian deputy transport minister, who recently has visited Lithuania, was reported to have been very pleasantly surprised by the change of tone in Vilnius.

Grybauskaitė is very likely to push this change farther: she will probably seek to align Lithuania’s interests and position with regard to Russia more closely with those of the major partners in the EU such as Germany or France. And she will definitely pursue a deeper integration into the EU rather than what she considers a phony regional leadership in building partnerships in the EU Eastern neighbourhood. She once remarked that Lithuania was spending too much time to befriend weak and impoverished folk (read Ukraine, Georgia etc.) and too little time and effort to make sure the rich and influential of the EU are Lithuania’s friends.

This new pragmatism and stronger emphasis on the EU as the foundations of the Lithuanian foreign policy will definitely diminish, for better or worse, all that moral grandstanding vis-à-vis Russia. There is an implicit understanding that it is impossible to change what Russia now thinks about history – we cannot overcome its internal political dynamics, which Russia’s interpretation of history has been so tightly built into. And it is certainly, given Russia’s cultural traits, counterproductive to castigate it publicly at every turn. We have made our point, so it is time to agree to disagree on certain things and move on to solve practical issues and exploit economic opportunities. Thinking this way, one can draw many parallels with Obama’s “reset button” or, more closely to home, with Finnish pragmatism. Inevitably, some will see these shifts as a form of “finlandisation” of Lithuania’s foreign policy. (This will also leave Estonia standing somewhat alone in this region when it comes to moral dimension of policy towards Russia.)

However, president-elect should remember that pragmatism also has its limits. Here is a quick sketch of one scenario how the outcomes of this policy might be described by her rivals in the presidential elections campaign of 2014: “Lithuania is diminished to following terms of the deals between Moscow and Paris-Berlin-Rome axis; those terms are often unfavourable to Lithuania’s national interests, but we have been coy to defend them in Brussels, wielding veto power if necessary; Russia likes us more but is steamrolling over our concerns and does not take us seriously at all; Russia calls all the shots in the region, while Washington is disengaged and Brussels is compliant; EU Eastern Partnership is in tatters; we have done nothing to bolster NATO’s credibility in the region for fear of provoking Russia; and the only person who profited from pragmatic policy and became even more powerful is a local Lithuanian oligarch and owner of “Achema Group” Bronislovas Lubys. Was he the real architect and driving force of this policy?”

It is dangerous to swing from one extreme to another in foreign policy, no matter how ripe the moment is for reasonable modifications. The above scenario captures a worry of many of us that utterly pragmatic EU-oriented foreign policy will do little to alter Russia’s perception of who we are: inconspicuous temporary geopolitical entities – nuisances who have to be brought in line and taught a few lessons that one should not stand up to such a great derzhava, and who can be completely ignored when convenient. It remains to be seen if new Lithuanian foreign policy strikes the right balance between a pragmatic approach and a firm defence of the country’s fundamental interests as well as identity. It will certainly be tested by many delicate pressures, cunning provocations, outright bullying and disturbing events. I hope president-elect will be able to draw upon her black belt of karate (figuratively speaking, of course) to cope with them in a way that, five years from now, we are able to celebrate another great success story of the Lithuanian foreign policy.

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